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A Family Will Remain United

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Michelle Mendez is a 2008 Fellow sponsored by DLA Piper LLP. She was hosted by Catholic Charities of Washington Immigration Legal Services. Michelle currently serves as the director of the Defending Vulnerable Populations unit at Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

Photo of Michelle Mendez

On May 2, 2009, a Frederick County Sheriff’s Deputy in Maryland pulled over a mother for practicing driving in the parking lot of a church where her husband was teaching youth bible study. The officer was much more interested in her immigration status than the traffic violation. The mother was arrested for a minor traffic violation—which was later dismissed—and then directly handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

During Michelle Mendez’s first year as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, she received a call about the mother. She immediately knew she had to take on her case. Michelle’s Fellowship focused on providing representation to immigrants in removal proceedings on account of civil rights violations by local police and ICE agents.

“Equal Justice Works provided me with an inroad to a wonderful non-profit host organization, training opportunities, including a National Institute of Trial Advocacy training, a network of contacts, and prestige,” said Michelle.

She worked on the case throughout her entire two-year Fellowship. Following her Fellowship, she continued to advocate for the mother while working as a staff attorney at Catholic Charities of Washington Immigration Legal Services. She fought through multiple denials and appeals to keep her client in the United States with her family.

Her hard work led to the case being reopened in light of new evidence that her client’s daughter was exhibiting emotional issues—including a crippling fear of police officers after seeing her mother handcuffed and taken from her in a police vehicle—and learning disabilities at school. Unfortunately, the arguments were set to go before the Baltimore Immigration Court on November 2019—almost ten years after the mother’s initial arrest.

Since starting on the case, Michelle has become the director of the Defending Vulnerable Populations Program at Catholic Legal Immigration Network. When the court date neared, her busy schedule and heavy workload prevented her from giving this case the time and attention it needed and deserved. With a heavy heart, she asked Professor Maureen Sweeney of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law Immigration Clinic if she could take over the case. As a former student in the clinic, she knew the clinic would be the best legal representative for this case and this family who had endured so much.

Over a decade later, Professor Maureen Sweeney and the University of Maryland Carey School of Law Immigration Clinic were able to go before the Baltimore Immigration Court.

“When I learned that Professor Sweeney and her students won the case, I felt a huge sense of relief. I felt like I had been holding part of my breath for over 10 years and could finally breathe normally. Images went through my mind of the family celebrating milestones together, of the parents attending their children’s high school graduation, just as every family should,” said Michelle.

To learn more about Michelle and her Fellowship project, click here.

I felt like I had been holding part of my breath for over 10 years and could finally breathe normally...just as every family should.

Michelle Mendez /
2008 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow